It could be said that the revival of Logan’s historic Utah Theatre was made possible by an organ donation. Built in 1936 and originally named the Roxy, the one-screen art deco movie house sat for decades as neighboring theaters such as the Capitol and the Old Lyric received makeovers.
Then, nearly 10 years ago, Michael Ballam imagined a new future for the crumbling venue. A Logan native, celebrated opera performer and founder of the Utah Festival Opera Company (UFOC), Ballam envisioned a fully- equipped performing arts center that could house a rare Wurlitzer pipe organ he’d received from a donor.
“My family and I had been living in Israel for a year, and when we came home in 2006, I saw a ‘For Sale’ sign on the Utah Theatre,” said Ballam. “I went to the owner and asked what was happening with the theater and he said, ‘I’ve been waiting for you to come buy it.’”
Ballam soon met with businessman-philanthropist Larry H. Miller and his wife Gail. The Millers made the initial donation to purchase the building for the UFOC.
But the purchase was likely the simplest part of the revitalization efforts according to Jim Roberts, superintendent for Raymond Construction, who has been at work on the project from the beginning. “It was still operating as a theater. They were showing old movies, but the building was in rough shape,” Roberts said.
Ballam continued raising money and working with adjacent property owners, and renovations moved along as funding permitted. Eventually the stage was expanded to the east, west and south. The neighboring building was purchased and converted, featuring a new lobby, restrooms and dressing rooms and topped with an open air café. A fly-loft was added to the building, allowing quick scenery changes and rigging for “flying” performers.
But creating a space for the showpiece Wurlitzer organ proved the greatest challenge. The familiar, multi-tiered keyboard is only a small part of the instrument. The pipes, some 16-feet tall, pneumatic drums, cymbals and chimes and the massive blower that powers them all had to reside under the stage. While digging under the theater to make space for the organ components, crews hit a groundwater aquifer.
“The ground just turned to quicksand,” said Roberts. “As quick as we could scoop out dirt and water, it would just fill up again.” So the work came to a halt and water was pumped out while engineers worked on a solution. Eventually a chamber for the organ was created, using rocks to stabilize the ground and concrete that could cure underwater. Upstairs in the theater, historic art deco moldings were repaired and replaced, and the walls fitted with retractable curtains to control acoustics. Ballam brought in an Italian craftsman to repaint details in the original Florentine style.
“His name is Nino DeRobertis, and he’s one of the few artists left who paint in this style. He’d never been out of Italy for more than two days in his whole life, but he volunteered to come to little Logan, Utah and do this for us.”
UFOC managing director Gary Griffin says he doesn’t see a third performance space in a small city like Logan as too much of a good thing.
“We want to make Logan a destination for the arts. We’ll have three beautiful theaters within a few hundred feet of each other,” Griffin said. “We’ll have a wide variety of things from movies to plays to live musical performance and operas, all in this one area of town.”
Ballam says that thanks to about $11.5 million in donations over the last eight years, completion is in sight and he anticipates opening the new 330-seat Utah Theatre this spring in time for UFOC’s 2016 season.